Pisa, Italy – Day 7


On our way back to the hotel last night, several other students and I discussed the prevalence of smoking in Europe.  In the US, smoking is prohibited inside of buildings and on public grounds.  I believe some states have banned smoking in cars with minors present.  Some playgrounds do not permit smoking.  But in Europe, you can still smoke inside some bars, there’s no limit to it on the streets, and they even have vending machines that sell cigarettes – which are illegal in the US.  It’s really crazy that it is still so abundant the cigarette boxes say in big letters “THIS WILL KILL YOU”.  It made me appreciate the legislation back home that keeps the air clear.

We headed to Pisa today, to see the famous leaning tower.  I researched some of the particulars of the construction, as I couldn’t remember everything our tour guide said about it.  Apparently, they built the first four floors, constructing the southern columns an inch taller than the northern ones as the building began to sink.  When that didn’t work, they stopped construction for a while.  It was still sinking, so they then continued construction, now making the southern columns 6 inches taller than the northern ones.  Then they stopped again because it was still sinking and after another 50+ years they put the bell tower on.  Construction began in 1174 and finished in 1372.  In the 1920s they added some concrete to the foundation to stabilize the whole thing.  Honestly, it’s pretty impressive that a medieval tower leaning that far over can still be standing and that you can go inside of it.  If your mistakes are big enough, they might just be tourist attractions.

On our way to the tower, several of us were discussing Michelangelo’s David.  None of us had actually gotten to see the real David as we didn’t have enough time, but we did see the replica in the square in Florence.  It was so impressive.  Michelangelo had sculpted him in 4 years out of a solid block of marble.  He studied human bodies intently so that he could bring David out of the block and make him real from the way he stood to the veins on his hands. As we were discussing this, Professor Strokanov asked if any of us had noticed that Michelangelo hadn’t circumcised David.  I turned to another girl and whispered that I hadn’t really inspected him that closely.  But it was an interesting question – why would Michelangelo choose not to circumcise David who was clearly Jewish and would most certainly have been circumcised?  Professor Strokanov left us with the posed question, though and didn’t offer an answer as we arrived in the plaza with the church, baptistery, leaning tower, and cemetery.

We didn’t get to go up inside the leaning tower, but we did get to go in the baptistery and the church.  The leaning tower is the bell tower for the cathedral complex which includes a baptistery, church, and cemetery.  The white marble of which they were all constructed shines so brilliantly in the sunlight.  In the baptistery, we had the opportunity to look around and then to hear the most amazing demonstration of the acoustics of the building by one of the staff.  The single voice echoed and filled the space – perfectly intoned and layering upon itself over and over again.  It was such an inspiring, coveted sound that technicians cannot seem to recreate with any of their modern technology.  The single human voice inside that chamber was so haunting and spiritual.  I took the little video below:


Before the demonstration, all the signs say to be silent, but there was always a dull hum of voices.  It really bothered me, actually.  People don’t know how to be silent.  We are always needing to fill silence with sound or noise or pictures or our phones.  How hard is it to not say anything at all?  Those moments of silence are so much more valuable than indulging an urge to say something meaningless.

When we got into the church, I was very much impressed by the stone work and marble.  Again, the craftsmanship is just astounding in these places.  So much talent.  Every man must be an artist in his own way – I cannot think of another reason why so many beautiful things have been built.

I am not certain if the overstimulation of all the brilliant experiences finally caught up and overwhelmed me, or if I felt some inexplicable stress from travel and the companionship of all the people around me all the time… but it was here, in the church in Pisa that I suddenly had a few moments of silent reflection and I began to cry.  Perhaps I was overtired, or sad, or frustrated… I am not sure.  But I found release in the tears.  I wondered how many people had come here to cry over the centuries – angry or hurt or sad or forlorn or desperate.  The human condition that can craft such exquisite tapestries and create such incredible beauty often has such deep wells of suffering and angst and pain.  It gave me comfort to think that I am not the only person to have cried for no reason or any reason… sometimes, you just need to cry.  That’s all.  Because you are a person.  We are all people regardless of the places we live or the language we speak or whether or not we can build our towers straight or leaning.  We are people.

While exploring the area around the Leaning Tower of Pisa and enjoying free time, I thought back about the question Professor Strokanov had posed.  Having gone to bible school back in the day – I tend to blush everything with shades of religious meaning and I wondered if there was some religious statement that Michelangelo was trying to make. It’s easy enough to imagine as the church was such a force during the Medieval Times and even in the Renaissance.  I mean, Pisa itself was Galileo Galilei’s hometown.  He was excommunicated from the Catholic Church for his scientific theories.  He had to leave Pisa and ended up in Florence where his ideas were a little better received.  I suppose Pisa was inspiring some of the thoughts about religious motivation. When we reconnected with the group, I asked Professor Strokanov about it.

In turn, he asked me what movies I had watched for our assignment (to watch two Italian movies prior to the trip).  I replied that I had watched Life is Beautiful and Marriage Italian Style.  He asked me what I thought of Life is Beautiful.  I told him I thought it was a very moving rendition of a father’s protection of his son during the holocaust and surviving a concentration camp through humor and positivity.  He asked me what I thought the Jewish community might think of the movie.  I realized that it might be very much offensive to them – having such tragic events portrayed in an almost light-hearted manner.  He agreed that the movie romanticized the concentration camps.  His next question was whether or not the story should still be told.  I said that it should.  He agreed; his point being that art sometimes must take creative license in order to tell every story that must be told.  So that statue of David is art – it was not an engineered rendition of an exact image. In light of that discussion, I wondered if maybe the reason was much simpler than making a statement or a choice.  Michelangelo said that he saw David in the stone and that it was his job to release him from it.  I think he simply released what he saw – that vision of that King – regardless of accuracy, it is perfect.

As we continued making our way west, I watched the landscape go by with fascination.  I am very impressed by the civil engineering in these countries.  I took a photo of a storm grate that fit into the town of Pisa’s decoration easily.  They have so much history to protect and such small spaces, I would be so interested in visiting some place where I could ask about the utilities and infrastructure in these small towns.  We had passed prefabrication factories and some equipment staging and steel yards early in our crossover from Switzerland to Italy and now we were seeing the huge marble pits and material excavation areas.  I grabbed a photo of one from the bus as we drove by.  The equipment is so interesting and I recognized some of the names.  Liebherr in particular has some fascinating equipment.  They are a German company that made their debut in the USA in the 1970s.  The invention of the crane in post WWII Germany was the key to their success and now they are a worldwide firm.

We stopped for the night in a town called Lavagna that is right on the border of the Meditteranean Sea.  As we were waiting to walk to the ocean in our swimsuits, I talked a bit with our bus driver – Alexandro.

He was telling me that Lavagna is not just a name, but an actual word.  He lifted his hand and began to draw in the air.  “You know, when the teacher is in front of the class… writing with… it’s white… um… maybe stone?”

“Chalk?” I asked.

He didn’t seem so certain of that, but nodded.

“Um… and what the writing is on is a what?”

“Chalkboard,” I supplied.

“Yes,” He said, his face lighting up as if we had discovered something together. “Yes, I think that is it.  No – we will be sure.  I will check.”

He pulled out his phone and opened Google translate.  He typed in the word as I patiently waited.

“Blackboard!” He declared triumphantly.

“Hooray!” I replied.  “We figured it out!”

We smiled at our accomplishment just as the group gathered together and headed down the Mediterranean Sea.

I was so excited to swim.  I had never swum in the Mediterranean before.  The water was deep and blue, blue when the ground disappeared.  I swam out to a jeti and back ten or more times over the course of an hour.  It felt so good to be in the cold sea that wasn’t too terribly cold.  It didn’t hurt my face or take my breath away so I estimated it to be in the range of 60-65 degrees.  (I’ve lost touch with my internal thermometer due to lack of exposure.) Later on, our tour guide told me that he overheard several Italians exclaiming that the water was cold.  Again the open water rule is proven: no matter where you swim – Ireland, England, France, Florida, Maine – people will say the water is cold.

I think I can say “the water is cold” in just about five different languages now… a good phrase for a cold water swimmer to know.

Florence, Italy – Day 6

Today we had a free day on the schedule so our tour guide and Professor Strokanov arranged a wine tasting at one of the premier vineyards in Tuscany.  We learned how to properly hold a wine glass and how to thoroughly enjoy and taste the wine – incorporating all the senses.  You have to let it breathe, swirl it in your glass, smell it, then taste it and hold it in your mouth for about 5 seconds.  It’s a novel idea, thinking about tasting things in this way – really exploring the experience of them with your senses.  Even the lunch I had in Florence the day before was so slow.  It took quite some time for the waiter to come, for my first course and my second course, and even for the check.  I was prepared to spend so much time at that time, but it was hard to sit still for so long just for a meal.  Meals are so cheap and fast in the US – people don’t take the time to appreciate and evaluate what they are putting in their bodies.  Whereas here, in Italy, if you are going to sit down for a meal, you are going to partake in an entire experience.  What a wonderful idea!  Evaluating what you are eating, letting it settle, thinking about its effect on your body, enjoying your company, maybe even ignoring your phone and email and Facebook… I think there is something to be said for meals to be more appreciated.

I digress – back to the wine tasting! They also brought out olive oil, truffle oil, and balsamic vinegar to taste.  We had the truffle oil on lasagna and it was the most amazing piece of lasagna I have ever had in my life.  You could tell the pasta was homemade… it would never occur to me to make pasta!  I will remember that lasagna for a long, long time.

Before we went to the Vineyard, we spent some time in San Gimignano. It has 13 medieval-era towers that wealthy families built back in the day to show off.  As San Gimignano was along a trade route, there was a lot of wealth in the area and it was an important city for travelers of all kinds.  At its peak, there were 72 towers in the city. As times began to change, though, San Gimignano became less important and began to decay and decline.  It was like time skipped over it – no gothic or renaissance construction are found and so today it is a rare and unique gem.  This was my favorite of all towns.  It was so quiet and relaxing with spectacular views, well-kept streets and storefronts, and medieval architecture.  It felt so much safer than Florence or Verona or Venice, too, having so many fewer people.  I joked with Kathleen that if they did have a pickpocket, the police probably knew him by name.  We all laughed.  It had that small town vibe and quieter way of life that so many places in Vermont have.

In the early afternoon, we headed back to Florence.  We didn’t have a lot of time, but I hadn’t seen the inside of the Duomo and I really wanted to go inside.  It had been a hot day that day, so I was wearing shorts and in Italy it’s not appropriate for your knees or shoulders to be visible when visiting a church.  I had completely forgotten that until I saw the sign at the door.  I was pretty disappointed, but I agree with the rule.  People should take pride in their clothing choices.  I know I’ve mentioned pajama pants before, but there are other trends that we have embraced in the name of self-expression that may be fine for some things but not necessarily for all things.  Well-made clothing – dresses, skirts, pants, shirts – is intended to be comfortable, functional, and to make a statement.  I promise it is possible to find clothes that do all of that. Besides that, not everything you wear is meant to be seen by everybody in the entire world.  I know it’s a shocker, but not everything is appropriate in every single environment.  We seem to think that because something is comfortable for us that it’s right to wear in any situation.  Well, it’s not. Nor should it be.

Anyway, I really wanted to see the inside of the Duomo, so I did the only thing a girl could do in such an inappropriate wardrobe situation.  I bought an emergency skirt at a little shop up the road.  I explained to the shopkeeper when she asked if she could help me that I wanted to get in the church.  Her English was very good and she looked me up and down and said, “So you need something long… and cheap.”  She whipped out a skirt that I promptly bought for less than 20 euros.  She assured me kindly, if apologetically, “You will wear it again.”

Armed with my skirt, I had just about 15 minutes before the church closed for the evening and Mary (a fellow student who had been in the same boat with the knees not being covered) and I ran to get inside and connect with the rest of our group.  To be honest, the most impressive part of the Duomo (for me, personally) was the outside and the story behind the construction.  The inside paled in comparison to some of the other exquisite buildings we had been to in Venice.  It was still far grander than anything I’ve seen back home.

After the tour and a quick bite to eat, some of the girls and I went on an adventure to find a particular shop that they knew about.  On our way back I decided I needed to buy some Limoncello, as I hadn’t been able to find it anywhere yet and I knew it was one of those things that you try when you are in Italy.  We stopped off in a hole in the wall of a convenience store.  Seriously, some of these downtown shops are so small.  They are the size of large closets!  But I managed to find a small bottle of Limoncello and I picked up a Diet Coke, as well.

The shopkeeper didn’t speak English – he was a kindly old man with a sweet smile and a mischievous twinkle in his eye.  It’s funny, bridging the language barrier.  I find that I have to think about my words very carefully and that I measure them for speed and weight before I speak.  I smile and apologize a lot, too.  Between gestures, smiles, and a calculator, the shopkeeper and I managed to make the sale.  Then he pulled out a plastic bag and put my Diet Coke inside it.  He handed me the bag and the bottle of Limoncello separately, smiling and pantomiming breaking it open so that I could drink it on my way up the street.  I laughed my way out of the shop, marveling at our exchange.  How much we said to each other without ever speaking words we both knew! Humor is one of the most powerful tools a person can employ.  I am glad to have a sense of it – even when words don’t work.

Florence, Italy – Day 5

We traveled from Padua outside of Venice to Florence, Italy.  Today we gave our opinions and explanations of our reading from the Divine Comedy.  It was interesting to hear everybody’s feedback.  The particular part of the Comedy that I chose was the beginning of Paradise.  Dante’s description of paradise was very different from the modern, traditional view of heaven which is often associated with Judeo-Christian teachings.  In Dante’s heaven, he explores all the levels of the cosmos which I absolutely loved.  Additionally, Beatrice’s role (the woman he loved on earth) is amazing, also.  The idea of a Relational Love being a part of a Divine Love and an expression of it and that Dante can explore heaven with Beatrice is something I feel that most of us can relate to.  Additionally, her role as a woman is very different.  She is not only described as a physical beauty, but she instructs, corrects, and explains things to Dante – and is respected for her intellect and wisdom.  I very much appreciate his love for her intellect and knowledge.  I like the idea of being able to connect with somebody in paradise and exploring it with them.  Professor Strokanov discussed this concept with us as well.  Paradise, across the board of most religions, is often a place where you receive the things you could not have on earth.

The scenery gradually began to change as we drove.  It became more the rolling hills and vineyards I have always associated with Italy.  The Tuscan countryside is beautiful like that and now I understand why so many movies are made there.  When we passed by Bologna our tour guide talked about the different historical contributions of that city.  The first European university was in Bologna – founded in 1163.  Tortellini, a pasta designed to be in the shape of Venice’s bellybutton, and Angel hair, designed after the blond hair of a bride for her wedding, also began there.  The Ducati and Lamborghini car companies are also in that city.  Lamborghini’s initial success came from building tractors and farm equipment, but he had a lot of insights into mechanics.  He wrote to the owner of Ferrari with some tips for improvement of his product.  Ferrari replied that he was just a tractor owner and he didn’t know anything about anything, so Lamborghini began to build his own cars. He chose a bull for his emblem because Ferrari had a horse as his and a bull is more powerful than a horse.  A little healthy competition is good – especially for cars, I suppose.

We arrived in Florence at an overlook of the city – the river, the towers, the cathedrals – how many ways are there to say how beautiful this whole experience has been?

After lunch, we took a guided tour of Florence – learning about some of the important figures in Italian history; Dante, Cosmo Medici, Michelangelo, Galileo, and others.  We saw the Ponte Vecchio, which is the original bridge from the 1300s.  It was not destroyed during World War II, even though the other bridges into Florence were.  We saw a mark on a city wall denoting the height of the last great flood in the 1960s.  We also marveled at the outside of the Duomo – which is made of green, pink and white marble and took 150 years to build.  The dome, though, that was a construction feat and a half.   For years, there was a hole in the ceiling of the church as people didn’t know how to construct a dome large enough to cover it.  A contest was issued and Brunelleschi – the genius goldsmith and/or architect – proposed a dome within a dome construction that eliminated the need for scaffolding.  Reading up on his creative construction methods, the lifts he designed and his designs are dumbfounding and inspiring.  Apparently even some architects speculate about construction methods because it is so tall and wide and HEAVY!  They don’t know all of the details about it.  Some of these buildings are so unfathomable in design and construction!  It’s just incredible.

Venice, Italy Day 4

The air smells like water and springtime – flowers and growth and life.  I could smell the sea and it made me miss swimming.  The training, the strength, the commitment, the single mindedness of a group of people swimming together.  I miss the satisfaction at the end of the event.  The travel.  The reward of being alone in a body of water.  To be cold beyond the limits of most humans.  To be uncomfortable and to be comfortable with it.  I miss the sea.

We got on a boat and headed toward Venice this morning, stopping for a glass blowing demonstration first.  Glass blowing is a longstanding Venetian tradition.  It is passed from father to son and master glass blowers have rigorous training and have to have years of experience before they are qualified masters.  The glass has to be pure, without imperfection.  The colors are astounding, the oldest coloring – amethyst, using manganese – is the oldest coloring tradition which they have used for 1,050 years.  That is incredible to me!  The United States is so young compared to EVERYTHING else.

The glass blowing demonstration was incredible and the showroom was room after room of endless glittering color.  The glass is so sturdy, that the salesman could slam them against the table with a loud bang and not break them!  I was so impressed by the quality of the craft.  It made me think of Vermont craftsmen and how young their trades are and how long it takes for a craft to become honed and established and fully expressed.  I wanted to bring back, not just glass, but an appreciation for craftsmen.  What a hard time to begin to be craftsmen in the world, only the last 200 years when everything is about progress and manufacturing.  It’s sad that we lose so much contact with individual expression, craftsmanship, and the tradition of pride in these things that leads to generations of quality and wealth and artistry.

We proceeded from there to Venice.  We walked down the main arrival area to St. Mark’s Square.  The buildings are so extravagant with different architecture, materials, and elements speaking to their time period.  I would LOVE to take more time to explore architecture and to understand the means and methods used to build these buildings and decorate them.

The best part of the arrival at Venice was that there was a Hieronymous Bosch exhibit at the Doge’s Palace and “Bosch” was hung on the side of the palace in big letters.  It was actually quite moving that my favorite artist would be on exhibit at the same time I was in Venice!  I wanted to go in the worst way, but when I went up there – it was only accessible with a separate ticket.  I was really heartbroken not to be able to go in.  I so wanted to see some of his artwork and learn more about his life.

The rest of the palace was really incredible.  The tile and sculptures and weapons and portraits and trim were really stirring – it astounded you and filled you with awe and appreciation and made you think and feel still inside.  I wondered about such wealth and extravagance.  Is there a place for it in the world any longer?  With such trends towards socialism and disgust for the wealthy, what is the future of great homes and wealth and architecture and artwork?

From the palace we went on the gondola ride!  There are no wheeled vehicles through Venice, so everything is by boat or by foot.  The streets are sometimes very narrow and even with low overheads.  The waterways are also very narrow in some places and the gondolier was incredible at navigating the water way.  It was great fun to share the experience with some other VTC people!  I really enjoyed that.

From there we went to the Rialto to look at the bridge over the Grand Canal. They have pallets stacked in the centers of some of the streets for when the streets are flooded, they put them down so you can walk them.  Venice is practically centimeters above sea level, so that happens regularly, I guess.  Venice has an incredible history for thousands of years.  It’s arrogant for the United States to call itself a melting pot after you see places like Venice where cultures have been melded together and layered upon each other over the centuries.

When we went inside the Basilica I was so impressed and overcome by the detailed mosaics.  They covered everything.  I so appreciated the silence that was requested.  People talk too much.  They don’t listen to the silence and whisper or see things or people or themselves as being sacred anymore.  There is an incredible need for sacred space, I believe.  For silence.  For honor.  For respect.

We spent the rest of the afternoon lounging in the square near the tower that used to be the light house before we took the boat back to get dinner.

Dinner in Padua, Italy was lovely.  Padua is a college town with a lively night life and perfect atmosphere – we sat outside in the night air and enjoyed the live music from the market in the square.  We explored the open market afterward and I found an ENTIRE stand of BLACK LICORICE!  I can’t even tell you how excited I was about that!  All kinds of it – sugar covered, extra small, flavored inside, etc.  Some had salt on them – with raspberry filling!  It was all SOOOO good.  I couldn’t get over it!  To walk in Italy and enjoy the night air and the lights on the church in the background and just to know that I am, indeed, one of the most abundantly blessed people I know.

Verona, Italy – Day 3

This is Ethan. He always wears a John Deere hat with a camouflage backpack.

We left Switzerland early in the morning on Sunday and drove most of the day to reach Verona, Italy.  Along the way, we listened to Professor Strokanov lecturing on Dante and the context of the Divine Comedy.  It was very interesting – I took notes, in fact.  I was very impressed by the light he shed on the medieval thinking of the day and how it translated through the story.  That really helped to give the text life and understanding.  It’s easier to appreciate an author’s writing when you understand the circumstances surrounding the writing.

The only two other things that were interesting about Switzerland that were pointed out along our drive were the 10-mile tunnel we drove through – holy amazing, batman – and that Switzerland’s energy is almost 50% hydropower.  Some of that is runoff from the snow in the Alps.  The drainage structures were really, really incredible and I would love to know more about that.  I was curious about the drainage structures and systems anyway and how they handle the runoff they must face from such steep terrain.

We arrived in the afternoon in Verona.  The terrain changed drastically when we entered Italy.  I was a little sad to see the mountains go.  But Verona was really interesting with its large wall and huge arena.  In all my life, I never thought I would be looking at an arena in person.  Maybe someday I can go inside of one.

We walked through a square with a farmer’s market and then down a long street.  The street was marble – not concrete or pavement, but marble.  It was smooth and fine and just like something somebody might have for a counter in their house… I was astounded.  I mean, I guess we have some granite sidewalks in Wallingford, but an entire sidestreet of it?  I couldn’t imagine.

We saw the statue of Dante in Verona, and the burial places of one of the governing families, and then we went to Juliet’s house.  I think I have seen Juliet’s house in a romantic comedy once upon a time, it felt magical to be there at first… but then it just felt sad.  On the bus, Professor Strokanov had also given his very professional opinion about the seven stages of the feeling of love.  He started with Insanity, then went to Dreaming, then to Planning, then to Truth, then to Resistance – which he didn’t talk about – and said he would finish the rest of the lecture later.  (None of us are sure that he knows what the other two feelings are, but the discussion was interesting.)  After talking about love and standing there thinking about love – it just felt sad.  “All love is tragedy,” Professor Strokanov said.  I don’t think he’s right, but he’s not necessarily wrong, either.

After our walking tour of Verona we had free time.  As there was a market, we decided to see what various vendors were selling and doing.  I saw some tablecloths at one stall and picked one up.  It unfolded and I couldn’t seem to fold it back quite right.  A woman came over and started talking in animated Italian.  We asked her in Italian if she spoke English.  She then started shouting – at the top of her lungs – and looking around.  I was so embarrassed at this point and felt like maybe I had done something wrong.  I was relieved when finally a woman came up offering to speak a little English.  The two women exchanged a few animated words and then the lady turned to me and asked, “Do you need any help?”  I laughed in relief; such a big deal to such a simple question! I replied, apologetically, that I was only looking.  We all laughed and we all moved on about our business.

We decided we needed to get gelato after that, but couldn’t remember where Professor Strokanov had said that the best gelato was located.  We ran into him on a sidestreet and asked him and he said, “Come, I show you!” and took off like a flash!  We ran after him and it was one of my favorite moments ever – running for gelato behind a Russian professor through the streets of Verona.  It was hilarious and something I never thought I’d ever do in my life.

We got back to find that the oil pump on the bus was broken and our bus drive was repairing it.  We had to sit and wait and while we did that, I had time to locate a four leaf clover.  My first day in Italy and a four leaf clover!

Tomorrow is Venice!

Lucerne, Switzerland – Day 2



We had a bit of a lazy morning before heading down the mountain to Lucerne.  It’s incredible to me how much space we occupy in America for our roads and our bridges and Right of Way and just in general.  When you come to Europe, your hotel might very well be up a goat path of a road that the bus huffs and puffs its way up so that it can pull off in a little side space to let the line of cars pass it by.  It’s crazy how steep and narrow some of the streets are.  They must have very good drivers in these countries.

Another thing I noticed about transportation – because you know, I like that kind of thing – is how many bicycles there are.  So many people ride bikes and they ride them up those crazy hills!  It’s incredible.  My friend and I were commenting on how we wouldn’t ride a bike up one particular hill, and seconds later a female cyclist came around the corner and started up toward us.  We wanted to cheer her on.  I wonder if people are used to the athletic nature of their counterparts in these countries?  Back home it’s always surprising when somebody bikes to work or runs home afterward or swims more than two miles.  I wonder if these things are just as surprising in cities across the world?  Is it weird in Washington DC or New York City where there are so many cyclists?  Is it American culture that is surprised by athleticism?  Or is it a global thing?  Do the Swiss or Italians or Germans find it normal to seek alternative transportation?  It’s an interesting question.  The snapshot of Swiss people we have seen all appear to be in good physical shape and very healthy.  Switzerland is awesome.


Anyway, we made our way to Lucerne and the first thing we saw was the monument to the Swiss bodyguards who lost their lives defending the French monarchy during the Revolution.  There were 1100 Swiss bodyguards at the time.  (When the tour guide was telling the story, he kept calling them lifeguards – which was really wonderful imagery to picture defending the monarchy in the late 1700s.)  The monument was of a lion dying, his hand on a shield with a French emblem and a shield with a Swiss flag emblem behind him.  It was so tragic.  Over 600 men lost their lives defending a castle from invasion – and the entire time King Louis and Marie Antoinette had been relocated to safety and weren’t even there to defend.

PSA: You’re all going to die.

We took a walking tour of Lucerne afterward, seeing the old wall that was part of the original city then down to the water front.  We walked the old wooden walkways that have been there forever and were a part of the defense of the water ways into Lucerne.  The walkways had old artwork hung over them along the way with strange depictions of men with skulls for heads and people either fighting it or running away from it or something.  I asked Frank about them and he said they were reminders to people about death.  They show death coming for people of all kinds – rich, poor, old, young, beautiful, etc.  How’s that for a public service announcement?  How about public service announcements being considered artwork some day?  Good times.

We finished our tour in front of the premier Rolex and watch dealership in Switzerland!  I didn’t go in, although it would have been neat to see the price tags.  We had lots of free time after our tour finished.  Winter (curiously enough, she’s another 30-something young person from Rutland that I had to go to Switzerland to actually meet) and I went to take in the Museum of Modern Art.  One of the displays had swings so we actually got to swing in a museum!  It was great.  We had to take a selfie.  Also, in the kids section, we got to draw cartoons of our life.  My hair has been crazy since my hair straightener doesn’t work, so I drew my comic about it swallowing my face.  It made me laugh!

We enjoyed the artwork and walking around in the sunshine and 70 degrees.  It’s been so gorgeous and clear.  On another environmental note – THE WATER!!!  The water is so clear here!  I just want to swim in it in the worst way!  It reminds me of Lake George and I just ache to feel the cold of it and get to know it.  I want to dip right in and surrender to the unfamiliar nature of it and see how it compares to my water back home.  What color is it?  What sounds will I hear?  What’s the texture and the smell and the taste of it?  I think I might carry my swimsuit around with me from now on.  Just in case of an emergency.  That’s not weird.  It’s only weird if you wear it all day in case of an emergency.  We passed by some dams or locks, perhaps, too that caught my attention.  My VTC counterparts and I were speculating about the construction and the use of some of the dam, but the tour guide didn’t say much about it.  I found an English sign so I got to read about it a bit at least.  I like environmental controls and turbidity readings and water clarification processes and stuff like that.  It’s neat to observe these things in other countries.

The bells are tolling nine o’clock.  We’ve heard the cowbells being rung on the hillsides as the sun goes down – I’m not sure what type of livestock they are actually calling in or if they are even for that, but it was really neat to hear.

My only complaint so far is that my ankles swelled up on the plane and they have not unswelled.  It went down a bit during the night last night, but we’ve been walking over 6 miles a day and they are not improving.  It doesn’t hurt, I just feel… gross or something.

I am having such a good time, although I am a bit nervous about presenting about Dante’s Divine Comedy and need to be a weirdo and do some research now.  Tomorrow we head for Italy with a stop in Verona before we go to our destination just outside of Venice.  It’s going to be amazing.

Zurich, Switzerland – Day 1

I am taking a Social Studies class for my engineering degree that takes us to Switzerland, Italy and the French Riviera!  As preparation for the trip we had to read Dante’s the Divine Comedy and watch a couple of Italian movies.  We also need to keep a journal and write a paper when we get back – researching whatever questions we came up with on the trip.  So I am keeping all my thoughts, hopefully, on my blog.

I have to start by saying that I am impressed with my classmates.  I was a little nervous about the fact that its a college crowd – 18 and 19 year olds loose in Europe.  I was further concerned how I would fit in.  But my fellow Vermont Technical college guys and girls are hardy, Vermont country types.  We might not be the book-smartiest of the crowd or the artsiest, but we are handy and hardworking.  The guys always help unload the bags, they hold doors, and are really considerate.  We are mostly all attending Vermont Tech in some engineering or construction capacity, and we all turn to look at equipment and tractors as they pass by or inspect construction zones or just be interested in those things in general.  It’s funny to me, too, that I haven’t heard anybody say anything about shopping – most people were excited about the lakes and mountains and such.  I feel like we are all very similar types of people and that goes a long way to making us all feel at home with each other.

Yesterday, we departed Boston and flew into Zurich, Switzerland.  Interesting enough, Switzerland doesn’t have an official capital city, but Zurich is the largest city in Switzerland and could be considered the business capital. We met up with our tour guide, Frank, and with very little persuasion from Professor Strokanov, he took us on a walking tour of Zurich – even though that wasn’t on the itinerary.  It was really neat to see Lake Zurich where so many of my friends have participated in marathon swims.  I was sad to not be swimming, myself as it was about 70 degrees yesterday!  Walking through the city was spectacular and Frank, our tour guide is so knowledgeable about so many things.  I don’t know enough about architecture to describe the different styles of it that we’ve seen, but the churches in particular are fascinating to me.  Throughout the city, special care was taken to make everything look beautiful – doorways were decorated and ornate either with woodworking or metalworking or even just phrases in German or maybe other languages.  Flower boxes were everywhere, too – there were some really, really small flower boxes!  It was almost like any opportunity to add flowers was seized with gusto.  Beauty is such an easy part of a society to discard because of time and cost, but I am just really appreciative of a people who invest in expressing beauty.

Most of everything was in German (even my Google home page!), and I don’t know German – but so far everyone is very kind and accommodating and friendly so I don’t feel intimidated by the language barrier.  I appreciate the way people dress.  In general, it seems that people dress in Europe not to make radical statements but to represent themselves well.  It’s a refreshing contrast when you see so many Americans wearing pajama bottoms in public.  I didn’t see one pair of pajama bottoms in Zurich.

I had espresso for the first time in my life!  It was so dark and thick and rich and good.  It’s amazing!  I can’t wait until Italy – I’ve heard fantastic things about the cappucino!  At first, I missed my large cup of coffee, but after sipping the espresso … I’m not sure I can go back to having so much water in my coffee.

After leaving Zurich we arrived at the hotel in Emmetten – the landscape is breathtaking. I am just enchanted by Switzerland.  It’s so moving with all it’s mountains and lakes.  We had dinner – a wonderful three course traditional meal.  And breakfast this morning included the most fantastic homemade bread.  The food has been so good!  I am excited to try something new at every meal.

We went for a walk last night up the hill outside the hotel and watched the sunset.  There is a beautiful church and the bells toll so sweetly every quarter hour.  It was a long dusk – the kind that lets your eyes slowly warm to every single color so gently that you don’t even realize that anything is changing until it is too dark to see.